By Royal Calkins
If Monterey County District Attorney Jeannine Pacioni is really, really serious about keeping all violent criminals locked up as long as possible, she could tell her deputies to stop negotiating plea bargains.
That will never happen, of course. Her office, the courts, the Public Defenders’ Office and most other components of the criminal justice system don’t have anywhere near the resources needed to take most criminal cases to trial. As a result, the majority of prison sentences are decided by prosecutors — not judges or juries — and that includes the sentence of a gang member accused of carrying out a recent Salinas homicide that has sparked the community’s anger.
Pacioni knew all that when she publicly complained last week that the two alleged killers, gang-affiliated cousins, could not have carried out their alleged crime together if the state prison system had kept at least one of them behind bars rather than releasing him early. She was critical of the Department of Corrections and the governor’s office for speeding up early releases, particularly that of murder suspect Gonzalo Echeverria.
“These tragic murders might have been avoided except for an unthinking, soft-on-crime attitude by our California executive branch and CDCR (California Department of Correction and Rehabilitation),” Pacioni said in a news release.
She would have painted a more complete picture, however, if she had acknowledged that her office could have sent Echeverria to prison for more than twice as long if it had taken him to trial rather than plea bargained with him.
El Salvadoran nationals Gonzalo Echeverria, 24, and his cousin, Jose Echeverria, 34, are accused of fatally shooting a popular Salinas couple, 22-year-old Jesus Arias Villa and 23-year-old Katrina Chavez Vargas, on Feb. 5. The homicides have attracted special community attention because the victims have been described as hard-working, law-abiding youngsters and police have said they apparently were targeted by mistake.
No one is pushing for elimination of plea bargaining, mostly because of the great expense of trials and the size of the prison population.
Both of the cousins are reported to be gang members, both with criminal histories. Attention thus far has focused on the younger one, Gonzalo, because he was released from state prison shortly before the killings, though an exact date has been difficult to determine.
In 2019, Gonzalo Echeverria was sentenced to five years and eight months in state prison as the result of a plea deal with Pacioni’s office. He admitted to one count of carrying a loaded gun in public and committing an act of street terrorism, both felonies. As a result of the negotiations, other charges were dropped against the young man, who earned his second strike as a result of his plea.
According to a prosecutor in Pacioni’s office, Gonzalo Echeverria could have been sentenced to 13 years and eight months in prison if convicted at trial on all the original counts and if the judge had handed down the maximum sentence. A likelier outcome, the prosecutor said, would have been a sentence of about eight years and four months.
In news releases and public comments last week, Pacioni complained that at the time of sentencing Echeverria was eligible to have about a third of his sentence set aside for good conduct. Later, however, the Department of Corrections imposed a new system of good-behavior credits that cuts many sentences in half.
Pacioni said the homicide victims likely would be alive today if not for the change. Gonzalo Echeverria was deported to El Salvador upon his release from prison but was back in Salinas before the Feb. 5 shootings. Under the old formula, he would have been locked up at least for another year.
Despite growing concern about the maxed-out prison system in the United States, the industrialized nation with the highest incarceration rate, the effect of plea bargaining has received relatively little attention from reformers. More focus has been placed on ending cash bail requirements, reducing federal sentencing mandates and seeking various alternatives to imprisonment.
Plea bargaining has escaped wider discussion partly because its effects are difficult to calculate and evaluate. The resulting sentences are usually tucked inside voluminous court files that generally are not electronically searchable, and written policies within prosecutorial offices are seldom open to public inspection.
Still, the practice has been receiving somewhat more attention in recent years, led by a sweeping study by the Vera Institute of Justice, a New York and Washington, D.C., think tank. The highly regarded organization is pushing for sweeping prison reforms even while receiving large portions of its budget from law enforcement and other entities involved with law enforcement.
Among other things, the study published in 2020 found that women receive lighter sentences than men as a result of plea bargaining and that white defendants do significantly better than minorities.
The study also found that defendants jailed before going to trial were particularly quick to agree to plea bargains regardless of their guilt or innocence.
Defense attorneys have also long claimed that prosecutors “over charge” defendants, leading them to eagerly agree to plea deals because they’re facing multiple charges and enhancements stemming from the same act.
No one, including the Vera Institute, is pushing for elimination of plea bargaining, mostly because of the great expense of trials and the size of the prison population. A Pennsylvania study using data from the late 1990s found that people convicted by juries were nearly three times more likely to go to prison than those who enter into plea bargains, and to receive longer sentences.
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